Chapter 11 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter XI.

There was a refugee bureau at the South Melbourne cricket ground where information could be obtained. Here our story that we had come from Sydney by the South Coast attracted immediate attention. Telephones rang and five minutes later we were in a car and driving to the Barracks. How anxious the authorities were for information was manifest by the immediate interview we had with an Intelligence officer.

To the best of our ability we told of conditions at Sydney, and of the roads down, and of what we had seen of the enemy raids. For an hour we answered questions. Then our luck held. Lynda had demanded from Fergus the right to volunteer for Army nursing, to which he had readily agreed as the best and safest place for her if there were safety anywhere. So that at the close of our interview when we, in our turn, offered ourselves for service of any kind, Lynda had no difficulty in gaining her wish. Even the problem of her shelter for the night was solved by the Army Medical authorities. With us, however, the situation was not so easy. Then chance helped us.

As we were leaving the Barracks, Fergus almost fell on the neck of an officer wearing red tabs, who was coming up the steps. “Ginger!” he exclaimed. The other stood off and looked at him, and a second later the two were wringing one another’s hands. Bob and I were introduced, and the Red Tab heard our tale.

“All we want,” I urged, “is a job in which we can be useful.” He took us back into the building with him.

He suggested our enlisting and going out to Broadmeadows, but Fergus would have none of that.

“Now listen to me, Ginger!” he said with belligerent emphasis. “If we go to Broadmeadows it will be months before we get into uniform, even. We three have been shelled by those blighters.” He gave a rapid sketch of our experiences of the week, and went on. “What we want is action, my boy ——”

“But,” began “Ginger” (I do not recollect his real name).

Fergus cut him short, “I said listen to me! We’re three good men, and we want jobs. Do you get that? We want them now. If those red patches you’re sporting mean anything, you’re the man to get them for us. Uniforms! any kind! now!”

“You infernal, pertinacious Scot!” Ginger growled. “Do you think there are no dashed regulations?”

“Just because I know there are too dashed many of ’em is why I’m laying down the law to you,” Fergus retorted.

“I tell you!” Ginger began to protest.

“Holy wars!” cut in Fergus. “Must I say it all over again? Can’t you understand English? Don’t you see, for one thing, so soon as we get into those uniforms you’ll be able to shut me up and do all the talking?”

“Hump! That’s a genuine incitement to break the whole of the Army regulations at once.” Ginger turned from Fergus to us.

“I think,” I advised, “that you would be saving a lot of trouble for yourself if you humour him.”

Ginger tugged at the lobe of his ear thoughtfully. “You say you’ll take on anything?” he asked presently.

“I’ve been telling you that till I’m hoarse,” Fergus growled.

“You’re an infernal pest, Graham,” the other grinned, “but wait here and see what I can do.” He departed.

For half an hour we waited, dodging the traffic in the corridors. Then we were rounded up by an orderly, who shepherded us into a presence who was in earnest conversation with Ginger. I hoped, as he looked us over, we appeared more respectable than I felt.

“These are the three,” Ginger nodded towards us as we came to a halt. “If that beaky Scot demands to be made a colonel, you’d better give in at once. I can guarantee his nerve.” He left the room, throwing a “Good luck” over his shoulder as he strode out of our lives.

The presence looked us over, and made short work of us. “Occupations?” he snapped.

We replied suitably and briefly.

“Could you drive motor waggons?”

We affirmed that we could. Had he said tanks, the answer would have been the same.

Three minutes later we were out of the room, followed by a curtly expressed hope that we would not crash the transport lorries as we crashed the regulations. Fergus’s friend, Ginger, must have been a man of ways and means. That evening we reported in uniform to a transport park in the Royal Park. Fergus summed up the situation by saying that if a man could not make use of his friends in an emergency, then what was the good of having friends.

Daylight next morning found us loading flour in two-ton lorries at the Spencer Street yards. There were six of us with a Sergeant in charge, who was not excessively exacting. By seven o’clock we were loaded. We had turned out of the yards into Flinders Street, and were passing the Fish Market when I first noticed the drone of propellers. I felt sore, for I knew in my bones what was coming. It was again Saturday morning, and the memories of the last Saturday were still raw. I stuck out my head and looked back. Bob and Fergus evidently thought alike, for close behind me they too were craning their necks.

I was waiting, strained, for what was coming. Then somewhere behind towards the west there came the now too familiar crash of the explosion. There were not many people in the streets, but it pulled them all up, standing. A tram approaching me stopped as though it had been shot. As I passed, I cried to the conductor, who was staring ahead, “They’re here!” Mixed up with my apprehension was a savage feeling of resentment that, having left them behind at Sydney and Port Kembla, there was something personal in their raiding Melbourne, now.

Then the city quivered to a swift succession of bursts behind us. We reached Elizabeth Street, and turned north while that hellish pounding went on. Inwardly I prayed that we would not be caught in the streets. Some of the scenes in the devastated streets in Sydney were only too fresh in my mind. Evidently the sergeant, who was leading, had similar thoughts, for he was losing no time, and we kept well on his back wheel. I looked westward at each intersection, but could see no sign of the planes, though there were few clouds and the light was clear. Still the riot of sound enveloped everything. I did not know until afterwards that that approaching tram had stopped because the first bomb had wrecked the electric station at Newport, and that others were falling among the oil storage tanks and the Newport railway workshops.

By the time we reached Victoria Street, the bombing had ceased. We hurried on. From the Hay-market I looked back. Beyond the city to the south-west, smoke was rising in solid black columns that ascended for 1000 ft. or more before mushrooming like thunder clouds. All the way to Brunswick the road was thronged by cyclists — men going to their work in the city factories. Most of them had stopped and standing beside their machines, stared at the rising smoke clouds, uncertain whether to go on. When we reached Brunswick, the narrow bottlenecked street was in a turmoil of terrified people. Electric transport had gone out of commission for the time being.

We found the camp at Broadmeadows as wildly excited as the city, and hungry for news of what had happened. We had not finished discharging our loads when we received orders to race back with all speed through the township of Broadmeadows, and down to Newport to help to transport the wounded. Five minutes later we were on our way.

It was disastrous luck, or calculated deviltry on the part of the enemy that the raid was made at the time. The shops were working night and day turning out munitions with an increased staff. They caught not only the night shift, but many of the dayshift who had already arrived. For this reason the loss of life had been calamitous. As we drove through Footscray the great columns of smoke from the wrecked oil tanks were still spreading their sinister pall that blotted out the sun.

When we reached the devastated yards crowds of people from the surrounding district were risking their lives trying to recover victims from the shattered shops. To Fergus and me, it was a horrible repetition of our work in the Domain on the night of Bloody Saturday. Though a fleet of ambulance waggons was on the scene before us, they could not cope with the loads of suffering lifted from the wreckage. Not five per cent. of the unfortunate workers escaped injury. In exploding, the bombs had hurled, with terrible effect, fragments of shattered machinery and all the loose metal lying about the shops that added terribly to their destructive force.

A number of bombs had fallen among the thickly clustered homes to the north and in the residential area, where a whole block close to the Newport Railway Station was blazing. It needed gritted teeth and steel nerves to help to load our lorries and to drive the mangled and torn bodies to the temporary hospitals. On my first trip with 12 men, six were dead when I arrived at the destination half a mile away.

As we worked, all the time the conviction was at the back of my mind that those accursed planes would return. I felt sure that Newport would not be their sole objective, and that their tactics of frightfulness were to be repeated in Melbourne. On the only occasion on which I saw Fergus during the morning he re-echoed my anxiety. The morning passed swiftly in our heartbreaking toil. It seemed as though the smoking, twisted ruins had become an inexhaustible source of mangled humanity. I do not know when, but it must have been well after midday, I again heard that sound I had come to hate above all others — the note of propellers flying thousands of feet up.

The day was fine and the white clouds were very high, but looking up we saw the flying specks higher still. They passed directly overhead. Then came the clear cut note of the anti-aircraft guns and puffs of white cloud broke out among the flying fiends. They were over the city — 50 of them. Helpless and sick at heart we watched. Then from somewhere behind the spired and towered skyline in the distance came the now too familiar crash, with its sudden mighty black fountain of smoke. Even the searchers among the ruins for the few who still remained alive, halted in their work and stood awe-stricken. Roar after roar, crash after crash, and the black clouds sprang up, thinned and rose again. For fifteen minutes that seemed interminable, the solid earth seemed to quiver under the blows. Then the birds of prey droned overhead seaward again.

I tried to shut out of my mind the thought of what had happened in the city during those minutes. We heard nothing as we went on with our work until only the dead remained. That raid of the morning had been disastrous enough without the second. The railway workshops had been completely wrecked along with the electric power station, and all the oil fuel storage tanks. Almost as deplorable was the total destruction of the sewerage pumping plant for the entire metropolitan area. All these vital spots seemed as though grouped as an invitation to the attacker. Added to this was the havoc among the surrounding homes. I never heard the total of that death roll, but it must have been ghastly.

There was, however, we learned later, one mitigation of the terrors of the day. The authorities had anticipated the second raid. Orders had been broadcast suspending all business in the city, and all entrances had been closed. The enforced suspension of rail and tram traffic had aided carrying out the orders. During the morning police had patrolled the streets clearing them and residential buildings of people, so that when the second raid came the loss of life was comparatively slight. With incredible folly, though, some residents declined to leave.

By four o’clock our work was finished, and the transport train assembled on the Melbourne road. That drive back showed how the raids had stunned the people in the industrial suburbs through which we passed. The streets were quiet, but all the way through people stood in groups staring at the smoke that drifted high above the city. The almost total absence of traffic gave a weird effect. The rumble of our long train of waggons was all that broke the silence. We passed through Arden and Abbotsford Streets on our way to Royal Park, but could see no actual signs of the damage that had been done.

But we saw only too much of it later. The enemy planes had concentrated on the mile-long target of the heart of the city. It was curious that the west end had almost escaped. Spencer Street was untouched, and so was Flinders Street as far as Swanston Street. From there up to Russell Street, the whole block seemed to have been blown into Flinders Street. The wall above the Princes Bridge railway line had been swept down on to the lines below. There was not a building untouched and flames were raging along the line of the shattered warehouses and offices of Flinders Lane.

It was not until the corner of Swanston Street was reached that the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral was visible. A bomb had crashed into the nave, bringing down the Moorhouse Tower and the entire south wall, with the two smaller spires. The chancel was still intact, but unroofed. On the west side of Swanston Street two buildings had been crushed by masses of fallen masonry from the great spire. In Bourke Street and Collins Street the devastation was appalling. Fires were burning unchecked because it was impossible for the brigades to reach them owing to the streets being piled high with debris. The furthest bomb to the east had fallen in Exhibition Street near Little Collins Street. To the west, another had blocked Collins Street below William Street. At the intersection of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, a great crater, 40 ft. in diameter, had been blasted, and was full of water from a broken main.

One strange feature of the spectacle as we saw it first that evening, was the absence of crowds that such a catastrophe should attract. On Princes Bridge there were perhaps 100 silent awe-stricken people, but even in the north, few spectators ventured nearer than Victoria Street.

When night fell orders were given that no lights were to be shown. Even smoking was prohibited in the Park. The whole of the Metropolitan area was blacked out for the night. We three had learned to take our discomforts philosophically, and were thankful for any kind of shelter. I tried to sleep, but the scenes I had witnessed that morning were too new, and despite my weariness, I barely dozed.

Then again, all chance of rest was broken by that loathed drone of propellers.

They came about half-past ten. From the sound and the swiftness of their approach, it was evident that, relying on the protection of the darkness, they were flying low. It was nerve racking to stand in the dark wondering where the first bombs would drop, and strained feelings found vent in muttered maledictions and grim jests. A dozen searchlights were sweeping the moonless sky for them. As we waited in the Park, they seemed to roar above us at an elevation of only a few hundred feet. There was a sigh of relief as the sound diminished. It seemed an interminable time before there came the boom of explosion from the north. Then followed a torture of fiendish ingenuity. Those birds of ill-omen swept on a weaving course from Sandringham to Coburg and from Footscray to Box Hill. They dropped incendiary and high explosive bombs at irregular intervals. Four times they passed directly over Royal Park. Nearer and further we heard the roar of bombs, punctuated by the vicious barking of anti-aircraft guns. The brutes seemed to have carried loads of small but destructive bombs, instead of the terrific weapons they had used to blast the city.

That night raid was pure terrorism. The wide area it covered and the length of time it endured — nearly an hour — was deliberate torture of the whole metropolitan area. We heard later that they had laid their eggs as far apart as Gladstone Street, Sandringham, and the Pentridge stockade. It fulfilled its aim of shattering the nerves of a million people. Actually, it did less material harm than the two daylight raids, but its psychological effects were worse. The worst damage was done at the corner of St. Kilda and Commercial Roads, where the loss of life was pitiful.

The full story of the raid was similar to that of the raids on the Sydney forts on the previous Saturday. There had first been a concentrated attack on the forts at the Heads in the early morning, and later the fleet stood in bombarding the damaged batteries and covering the operations from an aircraft carrier.

Sunday came after that night of terror to reveal that Melbourne, though it had not suffered the Naval attack of Sydney, was as completely demoralised as Sydney had been. The three raids had broken the nerve of the entire population — the effect on which, no doubt, the enemy was calculating. During the morning we, who were again called upon to assist in gathering the victims, saw the beginning of the exodus on foot to the hills. People who had money were offering fabulous sums for horse-drawn vehicles. The terror of another attack was realised on the afternoon of that Sunday, when that which occurred was the worst of all.

They came over in force about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Disregarding the city, they crossed and recrossed the southern suburbs, especially in the congested areas of Prahran and Windsor, and out as far as Brighton. Every residential suburb suffered. It was in no sense a military operation, but a calculated butchery to smash the morale of the civil population. I think that on this occasion the loss of life must have been equal to that of any of the attacks on Sydney, except that in the city itself on Bloody Saturday. When night fell, the whole of the Chapel Street was in flames from end to end. From a distance the entire area between Toorak Road and Balaclava Road appeared as a sea of fire.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 127-136

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